Bird of the Day: Peregrine Falcon

I am fortunate to live in an area where a number of peregrines are resident. I’m not sure how far they travel, but I have seen them on the South Downs; above a garden in Barcombe near Lewes when I was on an apple pruning course (I dropped my secateurs); and an incredible encounter watching a pair in the field behind my house hunting woodpigeon, when I had the genuine dilemma of needing to go to and fetch my young daughter while in full, glorious, un-binoculared vision before me, the male was passing food to his mate.

The most amazing thing about that experience was the call of these birds. In the copse beyond the field behind my house there is a family of buzzards and a pair of kestrels. Sparrowhawks cruise past the farm buildings and hedges on a regular basis, and there are barn, tawny, and little owls in the woods and trees around me. Herons often fly over, and my call ducks run for cover as fast as their little legs allow when the pterodactyl-like shape passes above, but the peregrine call is so distinctive: compelling and authoritative, and immediately recognisable.

I visited Bo Peep Bostal with my children a few weeks ago (well, my son, his girlfriend, and my youngest daughter) and we saw peregrines – 5! – which displayed such masterly command of the extraordinarily breezy conditions, it was astonishing. In the left-hand photo below, that triangle in the sky is the falcon…not going to win any awards I know, but the wind coming up the steep scarp provided the perfect conditions for the bird to hold a motionless hover, then drop like a stone before wheeling back up.

In 2016 I went on a falconry day with a difference: I went to draw them. We had the morning to observe and sketch the different birds, with a more traditional experience in the afternoon of having the birds on our gloved hands. The two tiercels were trained using a kite (fabric, not bird!) with a lure attached so they could get really high then stoop after the prey was released.

I have painted two peregrines: one in gouache, and the other is an oil. I find it hard to draw raptors in a standing position as their charm and majesty is mostly in their flight, but these falcons are broad-shouldered and powerful, and there is that fierce, slightly arrogant gaze. I love their trapezium shape and their beak, hence the choice of the similar poses. The marled breast feathers don’t lend themselves to my style of painting in gouache but worked perfectly in oil. I thoroughly enjoyed both of these, and I’m really pleased with how they turned out. That slate blue-grey (indigo, lamp black, and a touch of white) is one of my favourite colours.

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